A majority of people living near Connecticut’s shoreline underestimate the danger they could face during coastal storms, according to a report released last week by Yale researchers.
The report, authored by four Yale researchers at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, revealed that many residents in areas that are at risk for flooding during hurricanes do not follow the government’s storm safety guidelines. Researchers said the report highlights the need for improved communication between government officials and residents.
Local New Haven and state emergency response administrators said that residents should evacuate their homes when advised to. But according to the report, many people do not take this advice out of fear for abandoning their homes during a storm.
Jennifer Marlon, the report’s lead principle investigator and a professor at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said Hurricane Evacuation Zones are determined by the National Weather Service using the modeling software titled “Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes.” Residents in Zone A are at risk for flooding in either a Category 1 or 2 hurricane. Those in Zone B are at risk only during a Category 3 or 4 hurricane.
Any person living in an at-risk zone can be advised to evacuate their homes before a hurricane, although no resident can be forcibly removed from their homes.
“We’re not going to force them out,” said New Haven’s Deputy Director of Operations of the Emergency Operations Center Rick Fontana. “We tell them this is why we think you should leave, this is what we think you should bring and this is where we think you should go.”
Surveys were sent in the mail to randomly selected residents in Zones A and B along Connecticut’s coastline between September and October of last year. In total, 1,130 adults responded to the survey, some with zip codes in New Haven, East Haven and Branford. According to the data from the survey, Zone A residents tended to have higher incomes, allowing them to be better prepared for a hurricane than those in Zone B, who tended to be more ethnically diverse and of lower economic status than their Zone A neighbors.
The report found that 21 percent of Connecticut residents in Zone A would evacuate in the event of a Category 2 Hurricane if they did not receive an official notice. Seventy-four percent of residents who responded to the survey had never seen their local hurricane evacuation map.
In New Haven, which has both Zone A and Zone B areas, the city begins to warn residents as soon as a large storm is forecasted, usually three or four days in advance, according to Fontana.
There are three primary hurricane shelters in New Haven, said the city’s Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Pugh, who added that she believes many residents do not leave their homes because they fear looting and want to protect their property during a storm.
New Haven has faced a growing erosion of trust between residents and the city during hurricane warnings, Fontana said, after initial weather predictions for Hurricane Irene in 2011 fell short of the actual storm. During Hurricane Sandy the following year, many residents did not take the city’s advice and stayed in their homes.
“Forecasting a storm is not an exact science,” said spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Scott DeVico. “When we’re faced with a hurricane or tropical storm, we have to prepare for the worst.”
The report also found that coastal Connecticut residents generally underestimate storm impacts: Over half of the survey respondents said that damage from past storms was more than they had expected, while only 19 percent reported that past damage was less than they had expected.
Marlon added that she hopes the report helps state and local emergency response officials use information about the psychology behind residents’ decisions to stay in their homes to implement more specific evacuation strategies.
A second phase of the research will be released in four to six weeks. Marlon said that this second, more in-depth analysis of the data will identify five different types of residents, classifying them on the basis of how likely they are to respond to a hurricane warning.
While Marlon said these groups have not been fully defined yet, she said they will likely range from “die-hard” homeowners who never evacuate their homes during a hurricane, to more anxious residents who take extra precautions before a large storm.
“The groups will not be defined by demographic; they will be defined by attitude,” Marlon said. “It’s about the attitudes and perceptions of the risk. Those are the biggest predictors of behavior.”
The report, titled “Hurricane Perceptions of Coastal Connecticut Residents,” was approved and funded by the organization Sea Grant, and was one of 10 proposals in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York to receive aid.